Interview with Tanaka Mutakwa, VP of Engineering at Names & Faces

Published on Nov 30, 2020

23 min read

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**Vidal Graupera
**Good morning and welcome to Managers Club. Today I have with me Tanaka Mutakwa. Welcome to Managers Club Tanaka!

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Hello, thank you very much for having me. Excited to share some management tips today.

What’s your background and how did you get into management?

**Vidal Graupera
**Awesome. Maybe you could start a little bit tell us about yourself, and how did you get into management.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**I initially started working as a software engineer after university, and I worked as a software engineer for seven years before moving into a technology leadership role. My first job was at a corporate for about four years. And then I moved on to a startup, it was a small startup at the time, and I continued my software engineering career there and grew into a more senior role. Over time the startup really grew and was doing well so more leadership positions opened up. There was an opening for engineering manager roles and I applied for that as I always had an interest in leadership. I had already done a leadership training program that the company offered a year before that. I’d also been involved in a few things like recruiting interns for an internship program and running that whole internship program and mentoring them and guiding them. And also, because I joined the startup as an early stage I had lots of knowledge and context of the company. So when new engineers joined, I’d help them onboard, settle down, and everything.

I took the opportunity to apply for the engineering manager role. And I was selected to be an engineering manager after applying. That was after seven years of software engineering, and then I shifted into engineering management. So yeah, I started initially with managing five people that were reporting to me, and the role there was really helping those five engineers grow and develop their careers and ensure they have an environment in which they’re happy, and they’re thriving at the company. So I’ve been in a management role for three years now, I since left that startup, which I was working at, and I’m now the VP of Engineering at another startup, called Names & Faces.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

**Vidal Graupera
**That’s great. Could you tell us maybe what are the biggest challenges you face as an engineering manager?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**As an engineering manager, one of the biggest challenges you face is just the speed at which you get feedback into decisions or actions you make. I’ll give an example when you’re an individual contributor or software engineer. Your feedback is quite instant. You may pick up a ticket in the morning, write up some code, build a feature, and by the end of the day, you’ve got it out to a staging or production environment, and you know exactly what it looks like. So your feedback comes back very quickly. Whereas with engineering management, it’s a lot about decisions or how you’re setting up the team’s processes or advice and feedback you’re giving to an individual you’re working with. And that usually takes time for the results of those actions to come back. And it can be quite challenging because you can be in this place where you’re a little unsure of how well you’re doing or whether you’re making the right calls with these things. So I think that’s one of the difficult challenges engineering managers are going through.

**Vidal Graupera
**That’s a fantastic observation. I totally agree. It can take a long time to kind of see the results of some things you do, and whether they’re effective or not.

Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?

Vidal Graupera
Could you share with us a lesson you learned as an engineering leader?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**I think one of the first lessons you learn as an engineering leader is that most issues or problems are people related. Technology actually can be the easier part of things. Everything is about people once you’re in management, and I’ve seen it in teams where you see the cultures breaking or the team is not quite performing well. It’s usually because there are some people issues in the team. Maybe people are not getting along. Some of the debates you end up wondering are these debates still about technical issues that the team is trying to solve or they are personality clashes.

What’s really important as an engineering leader then becomes building good strong relationships with the people you work with. So they can be very open with you, and you understand them. And you ensure that as a team, and the environment they’re working in, there is psychological safety and good social capital between the team members. If you can get the people side of things right, then you can easily build a high performing team. And I think that’s really the important part. And one of the big lessons you need to learn.

**Vidal Graupera
**That’s a fantastic insight. I mean, I agree with you. Because I mean, there are some engineering teams that are doing maybe some groundbreaking stuff that’s never been done before. And so they might have some real technical challenges. But most teams aren’t facing that, right? It’s just more people issues in execution.

What is your approach to hiring?

Vidal Graupera
So could you tell us what is your approach to hiring and recruiting?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**I think when it comes to hiring and recruiting the first price is always internal referrals from people on your team of people they’ve worked with before, I think those are the best hires. Because if you’ve got someone good on your team that you trust, and that is doing well, if they tell you that they know someone else who they worked with in the past, who they would want to work with, again, because they’re really great. You can be very confident that that referral is going to be good. So that would always be my first price when it comes to trying to recruit.

However, obviously those avenues can dry up like if you’ve recruited most internal referrals or people may not be always be willing to move. So then obviously, you have to then always open up to looking at people who you don’t know and you’ve never met before. I think the first thing that one needs to do, as an engineering manager or company trying to recruit is, first figure out what what they’re trying to recruit for, what role you’re recruiting for, what is that person going to be doing when they join the team? So you understand exactly what you’re looking for before you go out there.

And then when you when you then start recruiting, I think there’s two important areas to look at, one is the culture fit with this person, you know, when you’re interviewing, you need to interview for culture fit at some point, will this person be able to work well with the team? Are they not going to be a toxic individual? Are they not going to have a big ego? Or do they have very strong opinions that are difficult to move that will mess up that people dynamic that I spoke about earlier that it’s very important. So you want to make sure you’ve got that covered? Then obviously there’s the technical competence side of things where you also want to interview for that. So generally, that’s the core approach I go with when it comes to recruitment, with actually a strong emphasis on the culture fit side. An example I can give you is someone could do very well in in our take home test while we’re recruiting. But then, if they failed a culture interview, if you’ve picked up some red flags in that culture interview, I would not be confident in hiring them. In fact, I would not, there is a risk that they would break an already high performing team by bringing that person in, even though they’ve got the technical skills required. So that is the sort of approach to hiring that I go with.

**Vidal Graupera
**Can you say more about…. I’m sorry to interrupt… say more about this culture interview you like. What do you ask, what do you look for?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Yeah, exactly. I was actually about to expand into that. So there’s a there’s the interview process we use is known as a WHO interview which there’s a book called WHO, which was written a couple of years ago, which is about hiring A players. So it actually defines this whole process of first figuring out what do you want, you understand what an A player would look like when they join your team. But then in that, there is actually what is called the WHO interview, which is the culture interview way.

Basically, you sit down with the candidate who was was trying to join your company, and you ask them about their previous companies, you have a series of questions, you ask them about the previous companies they’ve worked at. So you go through the most recent company then the one before that, and the one before that, you probably be able to go through three or four in that interview. And you ask the same set of questions, which is usually around tell us what you were hired to do and what your biggest accomplishments at that company were? What were the pain points while you were there? Why do you want to leave? Why did you leave that company? Who was your manager there? What would they say about you?

And as someone’s answering these questions from this, this set of series of questions, what usually happens is, they can speak a little bit about perhaps their biggest achievement was adding a test framework, an automated test framework, then you can dig deep and say, why is that important? Which framework did you use? How did that work out for you? And also when they answer questions around their manager and how the relationship was like with their manager, you can pick up things like, what do they feel like the leadership they need is like, how do they relate with leadership? And how do they work well with other team members, so you then dig deeper as someone’s answering, but then that’s like a template for opening up the information. So that’s the culture interview, and it’s served us really well. In the recruitment, we’ve done, so I’d highly recommend it. And I would recommend the book. It’s called WHO, as I mentioned before, it was written a couple of years back.

**Vidal Graupera
**I love that I have that book. And also, there’s another book TopGrading, which kind of has this career history interview. Let me ask you, though, like, I’ve done those interviews in the past that people, they, it can take quite a long time to go through a career history with each of those jobs and ask them these questions. So how long do you do your culture interview for?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**We typically book out one hour thirty minutes for the culture interview. I’m usually in those interviews, and I’ll bring in two other engineers from my team to help interview so they also get to meet some other people in the team. And also, you’ve got extra points of feedback from the team that would we be happy to work with this person. And what I’ve found is, it usually can go deep depending on how much detail someone has about where they’ve worked. And everything about three companies is about the max you can do in that if you go more than three companies, it’s probably getting very shallow at each company. But also, what I found is by the time you get the third company, you’ve probably seen quite enough information to be able to make a good judgment about the culture interview. So anything more than one and a half hours might become a bit of a stretch.

**Vidal Graupera
**Alright, thanks for sharing that. I think that’s a great recommendation. And those books are very interesting so we’ll talk about them in a moment.

What’s your advice for managers who are just starting out?

Vidal Graupera
You recently transitioned to be a manager in the last like three to five years, I think you said, so what would be your advice for managers who are just starting out?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Yeah, I think that’s an interesting question. I think there’s quite a number of things. So I think the very first one is you need to build good relationships with the people reporting into you. So that they trust you and are open with everything including any issues they’re facing and their growth and everything. Part of that is you need to have frequent check-ins. So to build these relationships, you need to have frequent check-ins or one on ones, depending on people call them at each company, with the people who are reporting into you. And you need to make sure you’re not skipping these check-ins, and you’re not skipping these one on ones that serve you well as you as you’re growing in this engineering management career.

I would also say if someone’s just starting out, this is general advice, even for those that are not starting out. But most of someone who’s starting out, I would say you want to learn as much as you can about leadership and engineering management. So consume as much content as you can, whether it’s reading books, attending leadership meetups or conferences, watching conference talks, or watching videos, taking courses. And just like growing that leadership muscle, it’s a never-ending journey. You always want to keep learning even for people who are more experienced, though, there’s always more content you can consume and different approaches to leadership that you want to learn about different approaches that other companies are using to lead their people. I think that’s the second piece of advice I’d give. I remember there’s a quote I once read about. That said, “there is a strong correlation between people who are really good at Engineering Leadership, and the amount of leadership content they consume or amount of hunger in knowledge and learning that they have.” So that would also be the second bit of advice I give a new engineering leader.

there is a strong correlation between people who are really good at Engineering Leadership, and the amount of leadership content they consume or amount of hunger in knowledge and learning that they have

And then perhaps the last one I would add is just recognizing immediately that you are now measured, based on how well your team is doing versus based on how you are doing as an individual. I think that transition is usually a very big change, especially a lot of people get into these engineering leadership positions without preparation. And they are so used to being perhaps the best engineer on the team and are the ones who step in when there’s a big issue and do it by themselves. And that sort of attitude cannot work when you become a manager, because you’re supposed to be empowering the people we are working with to be the ones who then become better and become great at engineering bits and execute on it. So that’s the last bit which I’ll give advice on is, look, make sure that you create an environment where your team is thriving, and start measuring yourself based on how well your team is doing. So yeah, I think those are the key things for someone stepping into the role.

**Vidal Graupera
**Those are some fantastic points. Thank you. I and I know you’re very passionate about engineering, leadership and development because you have a meetup. Did you want to talk about that here? I could ask you later.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Yeah, I can definitely talk about it. I started a tech leadership meetup in Cape Town about a year and I’d say about a year and four months back. And the idea behind it is just creating a community of people who are interested in becoming engineering leaders in the future, or who have recently become engineering leaders, or long time serving engineering leaders. This community meets once a month to discuss engineering topics similar to the topics we’re talking about now on this podcast, and help each other learn and grow and also get to know each other in the community. And the ultimate goal is if we can make engineering leaders better in our community, then each company that they work at becomes a better company to work at and engineering as a whole across our community and all those companies become better in South Africa.

So it’s been going really well we’ve had we had the meetups in person before the pandemic. But when the pandemic obviously started we started doing them online. So now we have them online, which has also opened up interesting opportunities because we’ve now have had speakers outside of South Africa, international speakers join us, and also people are attending who are not necessarily in Cape Town. So there’s pros and cons, I think, to both having in-person and online ones, and perhaps post the pandemic, we’ll actually have a hybrid where we will have an online one and an in-person one. So if we can cater to both sides, but it’s really been good. The community meetup itself is just almost 1000 people. The number varies on attendees from about 40 people to 80 or 90 on a particular meetup, depending on what the talk is about. So, yeah, while we’re doing it, still online, if anyone’s keen to join, they can find it on meetup.com. And they just search for tech leadership meetup Cape Town.

**Vidal Graupera
**That’s awesome. I mean, that’s great that you’ve created that, and sounds like yes, it’s going really well. You have a lot of attendees. Congratulations on that.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Thank you.

What’s your workday like and how do you manage your time, emails, etc.?

**Vidal Graupera
**Tell me what is your workday like? How do you manage your time emails, calendar, you know, all the things engineering managers, you know, have to juggle?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Yeah, generally, every day is different. I wouldn’t say like every day is gonna be the same. But I think I’ve got a couple of things that I do. So one example is, every Sunday leading up to a new week, I’ll briefly spend like 10 to 15 minutes on Sunday evening, just checking my calendar for the week. So that I see what the lay of the land looks like for the coming week and I already have seeded in my head what to expect. Of course, things will change and then more things will be added as the week progresses. But that gives me at least a good start to the week preparation for anything I need to do. Then on a day to day, as the week progresses, things do pop up like you can wake up in the morning then someone requests to have a chat about something or a bug happens and you need help to investigate or so those become more ad hoc. If someone requests a meeting of some sort of an issue that they drop to me I generally try to see what priority does it fall under, must it be addressed now, can you be addressed later and respond in that way?

I’m very much an Inbox Zero guy so my email, as soon as things pop up, I’ll check them out and see, do I need to address this now, or is this going to be addressed later, but at least I’ve read it. And same with my, with my chat messages, we use Slack. It’s generally like on top of that.

And then one other key thing that I do have is I have weekly check-ins or one to ones with my team. And I set those up all for Friday. So I’ve got seven people that I’m working with at the moment. And I set those check-ins all for Friday. I find it useful in that it’s at the close of a week, which can be useful in chatting about how the weeks gone. What’s been great, what hasn’t been great, and what’s what, what’s the future looking like in the following week. But also having them on one day means I know that my Friday is very much about check-ins and one on ones. And it kind of frees up the rest of the week for any other things that come across. So yeah, so that’s in summary, I’ve got some patterns here and there that I use. But I’m also open to ad hoc requests and everything and just deciding whether it’s important enough to deal with now, or it can be pushed to a later period.

**Vidal Graupera
**Yeah, I love Inbox Zero. I’ve adopted that too and I think it’s really good. I like how you have the one on ones. It’s nice to group them on one day. But however, since you’ve chosen like, I actually don’t like to do one on ones on Fridays. Because if it needs to be a risk, what do you do for needs to be rescheduled? If something comes up because now you don’t have any other day, that week, right? Like, what do you do in that case? Is that a problem for you ever?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**It hasn’t been too much of a problem. It’s one of the things that I mentioned for the lesson for the first time leaders that try as much as you can not just skip one on ones or reschedule them. So I’m very strict about that. The only reason I will reschedule it is if that person is out of the office or I’m out of office, or there’s a major production issue that means that person needs to be addressing it; for anything else, the check-in takes priority. I’d rather reschedule something else. I haven’t run into too many of those they are times, yes, when it has happened. It’s ended up being we push it to first thing on Monday morning because the person is going into a weekend. Still, yeah, I do understand that obviously does give that extra two days if it’s like there’s a major thing that someone wanted to be solved, and then they get rescheduled. But so far for me, it’s worked in that I’ve just been very strict about not rescheduling them at all unless there’s a proper emergency because I value them, and I think they’re very important. So I keep them there.

What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

**Vidal Graupera
**Okay, that makes sense that makes sense. What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**So there’s not like a technical habit or anything. I’m a runner. So it’s more on exercise actually. So rising up early in the morning and going for a run at least three times a week has been I think one of the most beneficial habits I’ve ever picked up. It clears my mind. I come back with good energy you know, they always talk about runners high. I come back with good energy for my morning and you feel like you have a good start to the day on top of things. Now we are in summer in Cape Town so the sunrise is very early at half-past five in the morning so if I go for a run at 6:30 in the morning, I’m usually back home at 7:30 and I’ve got like an hour and a half till they’ll first work stand up so I also have a morning which I’ve done exercise but I also have time to prepare for the day and almost check emails and look through what’s the day going to be looking like before work starts.

I think that just gives a bit of an advantage of not being rushed in the morning, you know, waking up and that straight dash into your laptop. But also just the ability to run and be off when you’re running. Obviously, I don’t run with my phone or anything, so I’m off electronics. I’m zoned in completely into just being myself and just clearing my mind. So I think that’s one of the biggest beneficial habits I’ve had. And also, I think a lot of software engineers can get stuck in unhealthy practices of always just being at your desk and not moving around. And obviously, just a bit of exercise just helps with that, too. So I would recommend exercise, it doesn’t have to be running but some form of exercise, and rising up a bit earlier, is very useful.

**Vidal Graupera
**I agree. I think that’s a great tip. And yeah, like to work out in the morning before going to work. So it really helps like, start the day.

Share an internet resource or tool that you can’t live without.

Vidal Graupera
Could you share? Is there any internet resource or tool you find really useful that maybe you couldn’t live without?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Yeah, I’m sure there’s plenty at the moment. It would be Evernote, which maybe for some people is like just a note app. Why is that like, useful? It’s ended up being the place where I even keep my to do list of, what do I need to achieve and everything, both work and personal, but also the place where I just jot down notes as things are going, if I want to plan something, I can quickly draft something. Yeah, so I find it pretty useful. Of course you can move around with it on your phone and on your laptop. So if you’re somewhere else at a coffee shop or anything, you want to check some notes that you wrote, or you want to just update them, you can easily do that. I’ve been finding that really useful. There’s plenty other apps that probably solve a similar problem. But yeah, I’ve been I’ve been leaning on Evernote quite a bit.

**Vidal Graupera
**Yeah, I’ll give a plus one to that. I’ve used Evernote pie for the last seven or eight years. And I have probably like three 4000 notes in it for all kinds of things. It’s an essential and essential tool. I agree.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**That’s really awesome. Like, now just thinking even my book backlog is in Evernote, every time someone mentions a book, I just drop it in like a books list future books I want to read and I always just come back and check when I come looking for the next book to read. So yeah, I think it’s the freedom that it gives you to do anything with it.

**Vidal Graupera
**Yeah, it’s just a way to get things out of your head to you know, because put it on your phone, it’s on your computer, it’s everywhere. And, and you know, I’m not gonna forget it. It’s here.

If you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

Vidal Graupera
We kind of already talked about this, but we let’s — if you could recommend one book to managers, what would it be and why?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**I think we mentioned the WHO book about hiring. I’ll give another one which is a book called Talking with Tech Leads, which is a book written by Patrick Kua, in which he goes around and interviews, people in tech leadership positions and asks them a series of questions about how they work and the approaches they give. Their take on the leadership. And I just found it a great book, especially just when I started out in the engineering leadership roles, in that it gave me different perspectives of different leaders and realizing that they all could be doing well but actually have different approaches.

We spoke about how I batch my check-ins on Friday, but you could find someone else wants to have one each day of the week and split them during the week or someone else prefers Mondays, and we could all be doing well at our job, while we’re just doing things in a different way. And I think that was the nice thing about that book in that he interviewed different tech leads in different positions with different experience levels. And you could just almost in one book, get the journey of plenty of leaders out there and understand.

And it’s also one of those easy reads because if you’ve got 15 minutes, you can pull out the book and read on one or two tech leaders, then you can drop it down. You don’t have to feel like you’re stuck in the whole chapter each time. So yeah, Talking with Tech Leads by Patrick Kua, would be my other book recommendation.

**Vidal Graupera
**That’s really interesting. I didn’t know about that book. I’ll have to check it out. That sounds really, really useful.

What is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team?

Vidal Graupera
Talk a little bit about what is your approach to mentoring and coaching members of your team.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Everyone is different. Every team member is going to be different What I know for sure is that each individual has an idea of what success looks like for them in the future, or what would they ideally want to achieve in the future. So one of the first things I do and is try to understand, as I’m working with people what that goal is what they aim for success, like what are they trying to achieve in the next few years? And where are they heading in their career? And I try to do that through the check-ins, the one to ones and also specific career conversations that are about that. Can we talk about where you’re trying to go, the next five years or so in the short term in the next six months, what I tried to do, and that just helps you build up a better picture and understanding of each person.

And just from that, I find that people are very different. People have different ambitions, one person might want to be a tech leader, and another person might want to be a technical expert. And one person might want to exit development at some point and become a CEO or a product person. Once I have that understanding, it then helps me to mentor and coach the team members, because I can identify opportunities that align with where they’re trying to go. So whether those opportunities pop up within the company, if it’s a new role or a project in which someone can be more involved in, or if it’s books, I can recommend that help them grow in that particular area or meetups or conferences, they can go to. I can also connect them with people in my network that I know that are already where they’re trying to go to so they can have some form of a mentor outside of our own organization that can then help them grow and get to where they need to. That is my approach, I then become the accountability buddy on where they’re trying to go.

In summary, it’s really understanding where someone wants to go. And then I help direct them towards that goal. I’m more of a supporting role in that. And if I understand it, well, anytime there’s an opportunity, I just open it up. And sometimes they find opportunities themselves. It’s just a case of someone constantly checking with them in the one to ones. How’s that project going? How’s this thing that you mentioned that is happening? Are you growing there any challenges anything I can support you with? So that’s generally my approach to mentorship and coaching individuals.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

**Vidal Graupera
**Tanaka, you’ve been a fantastic guest on Managers Club. You’ve shared just some great, great wisdom. Where can people go to learn more about you, if they want to learn more about you?

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Professionally, I’m on LinkedIn; just by my name, you can find me Tanaka Mutakwa. You’ll find me on LinkedIn. I also have a blog — mutakwa.com. Yeah, I write occasionally, generally anything about life or tech. I’m also on Twitter as @GeneralMutakwa so you can also find me on Twitter. I also mentioned earlier, there is a meetup community in which I am an organizer. So if someone also pops in there and wants to chat in, I’m also available there.

**Vidal Graupera
**Okay, I’ll share those links. Well, you’ve been super generous with your time. I really appreciate you coming on to talk with me and share this with all the listeners and readers of Managers Club. So thank you again so much.

**Tanaka Mutakwa
**Thank you for having me. It’s been awesome to chat.

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